Lots of formerly personal, private everyday happenings become rudely public when you have kids. Not only will you become totally blasé about having your bathroom time invaded by a toddler, but you might even consider dealing with your period in front of them. And why not?
Such was the situation for Kate Spencer when she found herself on the toilet in need of a fresh tamp while her two toddler daughters played nearby. She’d changed a tampon in front of them before, but they’d never really noticed. This time, bloody tampon out in full view, they did. Spencer writes at Refinery29:
“Is that...blood?” my 3-year-old asked. I could see her struggling to figure out just how horrified she should be. In her world, blood is the number-one sign something terrible is going down — a mess of scraped knees, stinging ointments, and screaming fits over band-aids.
I looked my daughter straight in the eye. “Yes, it’s blood,” I said. “I have my period, which is how my body tells me each month that there is no baby growing in my uterus. Isn’t that cool?”
As Spencer’s own embarrassed, shame-splattered period history flashed before her, she realized she could go another way with this, instead passing along a triumphant fuck-yeah attitude to her daughters about the miraculous, awe-inspiring wonder that is the vagina:
I kept going, suddenly confident on my porcelain perch. “Vaginas are so awesome. They can bleed, and babies even come out of them! I love my vagina!” I exclaimed, on a roll. “Don’t you?”
Spencer realized she was not only fostering a love and appreciation for the complex wonder of her daughters’ bodies, but also issuing a corrective to the years of shame and embarrassment she and her friends had felt about their own. The female body, she’d been taught, was a dirty secret; men, on the other hand, were free to make dick jokes and talk about masturbation.
I get it. I’ve found myself nursing a similar attitude with my daughter, who is 5, and with whom I’ve diligently encouraged, even against the naysaying of her various schools and other parents, to be frank about what body parts are called and to treat them as facts, not fears.
I’ve changed tampons in front of her, too. No, I don’t trot her in to watch when it’s go time, but we live in a small bungalow with only one bathroom, so if she’s in the bath and I’ve got to change a tampon, that’s just what’s gonna happen (to say nothing of the countless times she’s barged in over the years).
And with it comes an explanation, as basic as I can make it, that this amazing and frustrating thing will happen to her, too, when she’s older, and that it signifies the ability, if she chooses, to have a baby. It’s also a terrific jumping off point to talk about something else that veers beyond body confidence into issues of body autonomy: pregnancy is not inevitable for all women. You have some control.
I do this because I’ve realized that my daughter actually assumes that all girls have babies—that being a girl means automatically having a baby one day. I make it clear that not everyone can nor wants to. I’ve already told her that I hadn’t planned on having a baby but when I got pregnant decided to go with it, and that she was the happy result. It’s all part of the complex fabric of femaleness, and the sooner she understands, the better.
This is also how conversations start about different kinds of bodies—hers and mine, but also her father’s, whom she sees naked on occasion, too. She sometimes has questions about his penis, which she sees when he is getting dressed or urinating; “Banana pee!” she exclaims at these times. Also, “Here comes Mr. Penis Man!” when he enters a room.
This may all seem like quite the extrapolative leap from glimpsing a brief tampon change, but it’s not—understanding our bodies is not one moment or facet, one “big talk,” one browse of an illustrated book. It’s the sum total of our exposure to notions about mothers, fathers, women, men, girls, boys, gay, straight, in every direction.
To me, tackling all of it means being ready for any of it, at a moment’s notice. A tampon change, even once, by accident, is an opportunity to demystify the body, something that will be shamed, vibed, criticized, and quite possibly exploited or abused or harassed at some point simply for existing.
I would also recommend this frankness to mothers of boys, fathers of girls, and so on, though I’m speaking only from experience with a daughter. But this overall goal of understanding the kaleidoscope is why I also let her see me naked when it comes up. I don’t send her out of a room so I can change; if she comes into the room when I am getting dressed I don’t grab a blanket and gasp. We sometimes still take showers together when it’s convenient.
During these moments she has noticed and remarked upon my boobs, stretch marks, ass and pubic hair and in every instance I accept her questions and curiosity because I don’t want to telegraph anything but being OK with it. We let her hang out naked if she wants (though usually encourage underwear for the sake of our furniture).
Of course, there’s the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to encouraging this sort of body confidence. Jezebel’s Mark Shrayber wrote about a woman and mother Jess Spiring, who had penned an essay about how important it was to her to let her girls be naked. A lot.
She inspired such a blasé attitude about nudity in her kids to the extent that they think nothing of stripping down in front of strangers, and even go so far as to inspect the naked bodies of others. Mark excerpted:
Matilda was delighted to examine Grandma’s 68-year-old body at close quarters and my art-school-educated mother couldn’t have played it cooler.
Similarly, my 40-year-old sister, Jo, didn’t flinch one morning when she was showering at our house, where the bathroom doesn’t have a lock, and the girls barrelled in to join her. They were less fascinated by her body than her belly button ring.
Shrayber wonders if there is such a thing as too much body confidence. Yes, girls are inundated with relentless messages that they don’t measure up, but is putting it all out there safe, wise, productive? He asks:
…what if a child feels too comfortable being nude with someone who isn’t safe, including both strangers and adults they know and trust but might have ulterior motives? Yes, helping kids feel open about their bodies is great; there’s also something to be said about keeping your body to yourself.
But I would counter that it’s entirely possible to teach the difference between being naked at home and around family or trusted people versus in other situations. Part of shoring up against the risk of molestation is teaching body parts and explaining what kind of touching is acceptable—this isn’t contradicted by being comfortable naked. “It’s OK to be naked” doesn’t equal “Anyone can touch me when I am.” And I think it’s important to note that in our buttoned-up society, such freewheeling nudity is still pretty rare.
But normalizing the body begins with a willingness to talk about (and sometimes demonstrate) what’s what, and it’s important, in my opinion, to try to broach this topic—despite the fact that it’s sometimes tough to cut through the density of culturally contradictory messages about body shame and sexuality that shout louder and more regularly than you, and reach children in places we can’t always monitor.
Body confidence is a cornerstone of healthy identity and relationships, and it requires the reinforcement of child’s entire community. So yes, it still takes a village. But the good news is that sometimes, it only takes a tampon.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.